Were Trump’s Business Dealings With Russia, Putin Illegal? $50 Million Penthouse Gift Offer May Be Worrisome

Ricardo Ceppi / Daniel Jayo Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Friday morning tweeted out his defense of trying to do business with Russia, saying in two social media postings that those exposing his doing so was part of a grander “witch hunt.”

Trump said he continued “to run [his] business” while he ran for president in 2016, adding that it was “very legal & very cool,” and that he “talked about it on the campaign trail,” according to his first tweet.

In his second tweet related to the subject, Trump wrote he “[l]ightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project. Witch Hunt!”

Trump was responding to the fact that his former “fixer” lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty on Thursday to lying to Congress about how long attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow lasted. Previously, he and others close to Trump had been saying the negotiations ended before the Iowa caucuses in January 2016. In his statement Thursday, he admitted those negotiations lasted until at least June 2016, when Trump was securing the Republican nomination for president, per a report from Vox.

According to a report from BuzzFeed News, the negotiations included the Trump Organization attempting to gift Russia President Vladimir Putin with a penthouse at the proposed Trump Tower, which would have been worth $50 million.

In a third tweet, before those other two cited above on Friday morning, Trump quoted legal scholar Alan Dershowitz, who suggested that “[t]hese are not crimes,” and that he didn’t “see any evidence of crimes” in what was reported.

But not everyone sees it that way. Mieke Eoyang, vice president for the National Security Program at the Third Way, explained in a tweet of her own that the law may have been broken when the Trump Organization made the offer of the penthouse to try and persuade Putin to let them build in Moscow.

“Seems a good time for everyone to brush up on the requirements of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act,” Eoyang said in her posting.

That act, according to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, states that any person in the United States who attempts…

“…in furtherance of an offer, payment, promise to pay, or authorization of the payment of any money, or offer, gift, promise to give, or authorization of the giving of anything of value to…any foreign official for purposes of…inducing [a foreign official]…or influence any act or decision of such government or instrumentality in order to assist such person in obtaining or retaining business for or with, or directing business to, any person.”

There’s a lot to unpack there, but what the law basically states is that, except in special circumstances, a company or a person trying to do business from the U.S. in another country is in violation of this act if they try to gain influence in favor of their plans by offering a gift or payment to a government official of that foreign country. The $50 million penthouse, for example, may fit within the confines of an illegal action within this law.

Violation of the law isn’t a slap on the wrist, either: A person can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even face five years in prison, for violating this act.

An important distinction here is that, for Trump to have violated the law here, he has to have been aware of the gift being made on his behalf. If he was ignorant of it, and the gift was made by his company without his knowledge, he won’t likely face many legal problems as it relates to this act.

However, Cohen has made clear in his testimonies that he frequently spoke to Trump or a member of his family about almost every aspect of the Trump Tower in Moscow negotiations. If Russia investigation special counsel Robert Mueller can find evidence suggesting as much, it could land Trump and his family in a world of legal headaches in the future.